Friday, October 10, 2008

Winter Watch

This article appeared in the Townsman, October 2 edition

Woodstock, September 27

County, local and representatives of not-for-profit agencies hosted a well attended meeting at the Woodstock Library to unveil plans to address the potential problems for Ulster County residents associated with the high price of energy, especially home heating fuel this coming winter. The "Avoiding A Crises Forum" panel included Woodstock elected representatives, the county administrator Michael Hein and also the chairman of the Ulster County legislature David Donaldson. Also on the panel were Roberto Rodriguez, director of Ulster County Department of Social Services, Michael Berg, executive director of Family, Pat Courtney - coordinator, Mid-Hudson Energy Smart/ NYSERDA, and Kari Hastings - Medicare coordinator, Ulster County Office for the Aging. Hein, who then left the forum for other business, made opening remarks.

As indicated by the panel's composition, the issue was not restricted to the danger of residents freezing in their homes due to high fuel costs, but also the possibility that those able to meet home energy costs may then be unable to fund food, medicine and transportation expenses, among others.

Earlier this year, County officials formed the so-called Winter Watch task force, which reached out to the county's municipal officials, not-for-profit organizations including food panties, the United Way, Family, religious institutions, and also fuel distributors. The fruits of this endeavor were presented at the Woodstock library forum.

Emphasis was first placed on the necessity of residents to keep special tabs on their neighbors. "Make sure your neighbor is warm in their house," implored Dave Donaldson, chairman of the legislature. "We will need to get out and help each other." Residents who may be in need of emergency fuel assistance were strongly urged to arrange for a delivery before their fuel goes below a quarter tank. "It is very difficult to arrange for immediate deliveries," said Donaldson. "Don't wait until it's too late."

Rodriguez, who oversees approximately 300 employees and administers the County's 100 million dollar department of social services (DSS) budget, said the coming winter called for "a combination of vigilance, volunteerism and altruism." The goal of social services is to "minimize displacement," and he further noted that, "Winter Watch services are not just about DSS clients," that the intention is to "create a safety net for the whole county."

With regard to altruism it was announced that Heritage Energy and KOSCO have agreed to make donations of fuel for the needy (details have not been worked out), and that the United Way will fund energy costs as well. There are also plans for a fund raising concert to go off sometime in January.

The Home Energy Assistance Program (HEAP) grants, funded by federal monies and administered by local agencies, which are available to low-income residents and those on temporary assistance or SSI, are increased to an annual allocation to $800 per household. People who may qualify for this assistance are encouraged to call Ulster County HEAP office at 334-5436 for information and filing their grant application.

Directors of Ulster County Area Transit and Ulster County Emergency Services, Cynthia Ruiz and Art Snyder respectively, who were not present at the forum, were described as in the process of marshalling their departments' resources to meet this winter's challenge of providing additional transportation services for those who need it and to enhance emergency response.

Kari Hastings, Medicare coordinator for the Ulster County Office for the Aging, provided information to assist seniors in obtaining access to state and federal resources for medical expenses so that their personal funds can be directed toward food and fuel. Seniors were strongly encouraged to avail themselves of her office's services, which can be reached at 340-3583.

In an effort to head off spiraling home energy costs due to inefficient insulation or equipment, Pat Courtney, coordinator, Mid-Hudson Energy Smart/ NYSERDA, provided information on the availability of loans and grants to implement home energy efficiency measures.

Brian Shapiro, Ulster County legislator and recently appointed director of the Ulster County SPCA, rounded out the County's response to the potential problems of this coming winter by announcing the SPCA's program for housing household pets in the event of temporary displacements.

The most passionate speaker addressing the issue was Michael Berg. First speaking generally on Family's effort to stock food pantries around the county and crediting some entities for their contributions (Bruderhof Communities donated 3200 pounds of fresh produce), he then described the exponential increase of people availing themselves of assistance. He saw "big problems ahead for people" in Ulster County. With a slight nod to Woodstock councilman Chris Collins and supervisor Jeff Moran, who represent a community in an uproar over the proposed development of 53 affordable housing units behind the Bradley Meadows shopping center, Berg stated, "This problem largely comes from a lack of affordable housing. We need a balanced community. We do not have one because we are not amenable to mixed housing." He cited statistics indicating that Ulster County working families are in many instances spending 50 % or more of their income just on housing. "It is not just the unemployed and seniors who are suffering," said Berg. "Lack of daily necessities like food and medicine is affecting working families as well."

Moran and Collins also addressed the attendees, urging anyone in the Woodstock community in need of assistance or information for obtaining such to contact them. Brochures provided by the Town listing contacts for all the agencies represented at the meeting will be made available in the town clerk's office, the Woodstock library, Woodstock dispatch (at Town Hall), the Family of Woodstock facility on Rock City Road, and it is hoped in both the local drug stores.

Ulster County representative Don Gregorius, instrumental in arranging the forum with assistance from library director DJ Stern, and who served as host and introducer for each panel members, thanked the participants and again urged the community to "watch out for each other" this coming winter, and to spread the word concerning assistance. Gregorius in a subsequent statement said that the lack of Republican elected officials at the forum had no intended political implication, and went out of his way to describe County Republicans as participating and helpful in the Winter Watch program.

In a related topic, it was announced September 30th that DSS director Roberto Rodriguez was appointed by Governor David Paterson to serve on the governor's newly established HEAP commission.

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